Western Sahara refugees use film as activist tool

(This article was published in the Weekend Argus regional newspaper in the Western Cape, South Africa, on Sunday, October 6 2013.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Morocco’s “illegal occupation” of neighbouring Western Sahara should be stopped “sooner than later”, said the national arts and culture ministry as it prepares to meet the region’s refugees at a global gathering this week.

The arts ministry is not the only public supporter of thousands of Saharawi refugees displaced when Morocco laid claim to their land in 1976, after Spain withdrew from its former colony.

Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem also recently backed 30,000 refugees in a remote Algerian desert where the annual Sahara International Film Festival (FiSahara) highlighting their cause starts on Tuesday (OCTOBER 8).

Bardem spoke from Madrid a week ago when FiSahara’s programme was unveiled. FiSahara organisers said this year’s film programme “includes documentary to animation, short films to blockbusters”.

Films will include Life of Pi, Five Broken Cameras, The Impossible and a “series of films on social justice and the Arab Spring”. It will also include films by Saharawi refugees.

The arts and culture ministry in its statement ahead of the festival rejected Morocco’s “excessive force and torture in order to suppress dissent” by the Saharawi’s “against illegal occupation”.

It supported the Polisario Front that “founded the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976 and was formally admitted into the Organisation of African Unity, resulting in the withdrawal of Morocco from that regional organisation in 1984”.

The ministry has offered funds to two film festivals that screen documentaries supporting Western Sahara’s independence. One of these festivals is the Tri Continental Film Festival (TCFF) held countrywide during September.

The other is FiSahara to be held in Dakhla refugee camp in Algeria from October 8 to 13. Organisers said the remote festival required guests to “fly to Tindouf, Algeria, and travel over 100 miles in convoy into the desert”.

Bardem attended this festival in 2008 and called it “nothing short of a miracle”.
FiSahara will feature film workshops for refugees, music concerts, camel races and screen at least 30 films daily after sunset.

Organisers said guests would include “over 200 international actors, directors, human rights and video activists and cinephiles, alongside thousands of Saharawi refugees”.

“A strong South African contingent with filmmakers, activists and representatives of the ministry of culture attending and running workshops” would also attend, said organizers.

The arts and culture ministry said the South African government “continues to render political support and humanitarian assistance to the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic under the African Renaissance Fund”.

“South Africa coordinates several projects… This support is aimed at sharing experience on how the medium of film and cinema during the struggle against apartheid was used as an effective tool to beam images across the world of the oppression and suffering of black South Africans under the regime,” it said.

Its support was to assist the Saharawi population to “use film as a communication tool to do the same for the situation of Western Sahara”.

TCFF director Anita Khanna said they partnered with the ministry and FiSahara to schedule local films for the desert event.

Khanna said the ministry assisted TCFF last month to bring a Palestinian poet to its festival to raise awareness about “colonised people”.

“As the primary human rights festival in Africa we are concerned that there are still colonised people. Many are aware of the Palestinians and we want to use film to raise awareness about the Western Sahara,” said Khanna.

TCFF last weekend scheduled a Pretoria screening of the film ‘Mayibuye I Western Sahara’ by filmmaker Milly Moabi.

This film “explores the history of solidarity between South Africa and Western Sahara and drawing parallels between their respective struggles for freedom”.

Khanna said Western Sahara would remain unchanged though because “Western governments have turned their backs on the Saharawis who have no power to change the situation”.

“We do ask if it isn’t arrogant that a group of famous, wealthy people think they can make a difference about it. They can only raise awareness and get people to do something about it. Ultimately, governments must address the situation,” said Khanna.

FiSahara’s international coordinator Stefan Simanowitz said the film festival “has done much to raise awareness of the terrible situation facing the Saharawi”.

Simanowitz said they worked closely with the Polisario Front and Algerian security forces to ensure safety at the event.

“We have been assured that right now it is safe to hold the festival and to bring an international audience to Dakhla, but we are monitoring the situation on the ground very closely and will continue to do so before and during the festival,” he said.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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